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Slouching Towards .500

I’d like to introduce Jeff into the small Tigerblog family of writers. In his first column, he takes a look at the Tigers legacy, or soon to be lack thereof. Nice work, Jeff.

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The current era of Tiger baseball began with a whimper in 1994. In that strike-shortened season, Lou Whitaker and Kirk Gibson were 37, Alan Trammell was 36, and Tony Phillips was 35. Save Trammell, though, they all had big years, as did relative young tykes Cecil Fielder, Mickey Tettleton, and even Junior Felix. The pitching, however, was atrocious, and Detroit fell short of .500 by nine games. (Can you name the only Tiger starter to lead the team in ERA twice since then? It’s Felipe Lira in 1995 and 1996. He was 15-27 over that stretch.)

We all know what happened after that. The hitters got older and promised reinforcements either never quite showed up (Milt Cuyler, Raul Casanova, Robert Fick), or were nothing but drops in the slop bucket (Tony Clark, Bobby Higginson). The pitching never improved, and even the occasional inspired personnel move – like the trades both for and of Mark Redman – weren’t enough to overcome so much negative inertia. That 1994 season kicked off a streak of eleven straight losing seasons, a streak the Tigers are still trying to bust.

Sitting here in 2005, it’s easy to forget how different the Tigers were in 1993. Pieces of the 1980s’ best team were still in place, supplemented by a recurring diet of bashing free-agent and trade acquisitions like Fielder, Tettleton, and Rob Deer. The Tigers weren’t necessarily poised for greatness, but they were coming off of 13 winning seasons in 16 years, they scored more runs than anyone else, and greatness hadn’t yet grown faint in the rear-view mirror.

It’s also easy to see what the years 1994-2004 – we’ll call them the Lost Years — have done to the Tigers’ legacy as a franchise, as the Lost-Years indignities stack up. Tiger Stadium sat empty while hope surrounding Comerica Park faded amidst stadium debt and general indifference. The Tigers slunk out of the AL East, away from traditional rivals they could no longer compete with. Free agents with other choices never hesitated to seize them.

At the end of the 2004 season, though, the Tigers had still won more games than they lost, 8150-7959. That’s good for a .506 winning percentage, eleventh-best in the majors and ahead of franchises like the Braves, A’s, and Mets. It’s also 191 games over .500, which seems like a reasonable figure. But it’s not, not for Detroit. In 1993, the Tigers were 518 games over break even, or two-and-a-half times better than they are now. When Trammell and Whitaker reached the majors for good at the end of 1977, the Tigers were 389 games ahead. After Al Kaline’s rookie year of 1953, Detroit had won 290 more than it had lost, good for an all-time winning percentage of .518.

The Tigers’ franchise winning percentage stayed at .518 until their last winning season in 1993. Since then, they’ve been 694-1021, good for a .405 mark, plunging the franchise record all the way to .506. Eleven years have been enough to wreck a long history of competitiveness. If the Tigers keep losing at this horrid pace, they’ll drop below .500 as a franchise early in the 2011 season, or if you’re an enternal pessimist, just about the time Jeremy Bonderman wins his second Cy Young Award as a member of the Diamondbacks. Perhaps the saddest thing about these Lost Years is that 2003’s historic 119 losses aren’t even that much of an outlier.

If the 2005 Tigers break .500, or make a run at second place in the watered-down AL Central, will that usher in a new era, one to which we can assign a less-depressing nickname? Clearly the answer is no – they need to sustain a decent (or even a good) run to change the way their fans and the competition perceive them. One 82-80 season won’t make a difference, just like 2000’s 79-83 season didn’t. But it sure was good to see the Tigers at the fringes of the wild-card race in July and August of 2000, to have something Tiger to discuss aside from new marks for futility. That’s what’s at stake this summer – the opportunity to be a Tiger fan, not a Tiger apologist, the opportunity to build a bandwagon, even a short-lived one, for people to jump on. Every sustained run starts somewhere.

Welcome and excellent debut!

Posted by billfer on May 5th, 2005 at 11:33 am

I agree with Billfer. I look forward to reading more of your in the future.

Brian was getting boring anyway :-).

Posted by Jay M. on May 6th, 2005 at 5:08 pm

Thanks for the kind words. Hope I can continue to please, and that the Tigers give us interesting things to think about. Like wins.

Posted by Jeff on May 6th, 2005 at 5:18 pm

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